Central California’s breeze-swept valley town of Paso Robles may not have the name recognition of Napa, but that’s about all the budding wine destination lacks. Vineyards large and small dot lavender-scented rolling hills. Farm-to-table restaurants and luxe boutiques compete for your attention around downtown’s City Park. Big-name events (the California Mid-State Fair in July featured Zac Brown Band and Journey) and small-town celebrations (annual Pioneer Day dates to 1931) fill the town’s calendar. And then there’s something few, if any, American wine destinations can offer: a bona fide fortress. Hearst Castle, the region’s best-known attraction, sits just over the mountains in coastal San Simeon.
A trip to Paso will tantalize your taste buds, but more than that, it will redefine your notion of California wine country. To best plan your trip to this rootsy yet sophisticated locale, know these five things before you go:
1. There are more than 200 wineries to explore. With vineyards and tasting rooms ranging from lavish to simple, the winemakers of the Paso Robles AVA are known for their bold, no-holds-barred approach to grapes, often blending the area’s most famous variety, zinfandel, in innovative ways. Make a day of wine tasting at Tablas Creek Vineyard and other spots along scenic Adelaida Road and Vineyard Drive. You’ll also want to make the trip to nearby San Miguel to visit Villa San-Juliette, a sprawling, Mediterranean-style vineyard owned by reality-TV moguls Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick. Plan for a bird’s-eye view of the 168-acre property — the winery just launched 10- to 15-minute helicopter tours — and visit at lunchtime to pair your tasting with the kitchen’s Morro Bay rock cod tacos. Back in Paso Robles, embark on a treasure hunt to find hidden-gem Brochelle Vineyards. This boutique winery’s tasting room is housed in an industrial building 2.5 miles from downtown; its utilitarian façade belies the glam tasting room found inside, complete with a wine-glass chandelier and a killer estate zinfandel.
2. Paso Robles will also satisfy your taste for adventure. The town delivers thrills beyond sating your craving for fine vino, and Margarita Adventures is a one-stop shop for experiencing the thrills tucked into Paso’s rugged geography. The company’s zipline tour takes you through a five-line course at historic Santa Margarita Ranch, where the final — and, at 1,800 feet, longest — line, added in November 2013, is dubbed the Pinot Express, as it sends you flying over a vineyard planted with the red wine grape. At the end, opt to stop at Ancient Peaks Winery’s tasting room, or save that for Saturdays, when the winery offers food-pairing tours that include a vineyard exploration and tasting at the property’s beautiful Oyster Ridge Barn.
3. Wineries are not the only must-visit producers. Set in the heart of the agricultural Central Coast, Paso Robles ate local long before “locavore” entered travelers’ lexicon. It is a town of craft food and drink producers, and a place that piles its plentiful charcuterie boards with local cheeses, olives, fruits and almonds. A few of the best visits: Expand your knowledge of EVOO during a tour and bread-soaked tasting at Pasolivo, an organic, sustainable olive oil farm that sits among the wineries of Vineyard Drive. Don’t be surprised if you walk away with a tin of the startlingly fresh lemon olive oil. Nibble to your heart’s content at Vivant Fine Cheese, which carries more than 250 varieties, many of them local — the olive-oil- and herb-marinated chèvre from Alcea Rosea Farm is revelatory. Taste a flight of beer, and then another, at BarrelHouse Brewing Co., which opened in the city’s up-and-coming Tin City district in February 2013. Grab an Adirondack chair next to the brewery’s outdoor waterfall, or a picnic table in front of the flatbed-truck-turned-stage, and listen to any of the bands that play here weekly.
4. Stellar restaurants specialize in locally sourced food. Make one loop around Paso Robles’ downtown square, and you’ll have a list of California-grown dining experiences to try for a week. Put Artisan at the top of that roster. Housed in a wood-lined, rustic-chic space on City Park since May 2013, Artisan uses local ingredients whenever possible in comfort dishes such as white sea bass with andouille, summer squash and mussel cioppino. About two blocks away, Thomas Hill Organics Bistro & Wine Bar serves just-harvested Central Coast fare in its eatery, its THO Wine Bar and the lovely courtyard that connects the two. What began as an organic CSA evolved in 2009 into a bistro dedicated to supporting local farmers with regionally produced dishes — such as Ranchers’ Alliance local pork shoulder with Okinawan sweet potato mofongo, blue lake beans almondine and grilled Rocking Chair Farms nectarines. Explore the new mixology program launched earlier this summer, which specializes in sake-based drinks; the Ginger Grant is a refreshing blend of Momokawa Diamond sake, fresh and candied ginger, lychee puree and cava.
5. This emerging wine region was 125 years in the making. The town was founded as a mineral hot springs destination in 1889 by several local landowners, including Drury James, uncle of outlaw Jesse James. One of the most fascinating buildings for history buffs to visit is the Paso Robles Inn, first opened in 1891 as El Paso de Robles Hotel. Though it has since been rebuilt, much of the original Western charm and artifacts (and reported underground escape tunnels) remain. Still, what is new is no less charming; while the original hotel had a mineral springs bathhouse, today select guest rooms have outdoor tubs that fill with natural mineral spring water. Another historic building recently given a modern shine is General Store Paso Robles, an expertly curated shop for elegant gifts and goods, most locally made, that opened in May 2013. Even its name pays homage to the founders’ hometown; the building was erected in 1888 and once served as the general store. Fill your basket with any number of goodies, including a pack of Paso Almonds brittle, for a sweet souvenir with which to remember your delicious trip.